I must say, I’m fascinated by hipsters, but almost equally fascinated by the prevalence of people analyzing what hipsters really are. Seems like a day doesn’t go by that some article or another isn’t written about what makes someone a hipster, or how to classify different hipsters, or what hipsters are into lately. Either they’re the most interesting subjects in culture right now, or they’re the only avid readers who can be counted on to click headlines about themselves. Either way, it can feel like a bit of a dead horse source being beaten for stories.
However, last week there was a legitimately excellent sociological take on the phenomenon of hipsters in the New York Times. Finally, a piece examining hipsters not in terms of what, but in terms of why:
Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.
All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.
The whole article’s worth reading, because for once it’s about the disease, as it were, not the symptom. In the great social mess of urban life, clothes and music and preferred cheap party beer are all well and good to be talking about, but at the end of the day hipsters and yuppies and high paid executives are really all playing the same game: trying to impress each other. Displays of wealth and taste or non-wealth and alterna-taste are just a matter of saying that at least you’re better than someone, so you don’t have to be totally insecure about your place in the world.
Or to put it even more simply, there’s this cartoon: